The end of the Civil War in 1865 marked the beginning of putting the war-torn nation back together.
In this period, the nation faced three major challenges: how to reintegrate Southern states back into the Union; how to establish four million newly freed people as citizens of the United States; and how to rebuild a nation that had suffered catastrophic losses of human life and critical infrastructure. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 only complicated matters, leaving a power vacuum that no single political leader was prepared to fill. The Republican and Democratic parties subdivided into moderate and radical factions, creating a political morass that required constant compromise, often to the detriment of the new Black citizens.
Women of all races and classes were hit particularly hard by personal and economic losses during and following the Civil War. The legal and social limitations women lived under in the nineteenth century left them very few options for improving their family circumstances if their husbands failed to recover from the war’s losses. Hundreds of thousands of women were widowed and struggled to navigate social expectations around “proper” women’s behavior as they found ways to support themselves and their children. In response to these challenges, a new charity effort developed to help middle-class white women earn money while preserving their social standing and dignity.
When the official period of Reconstruction ended in 1877, Black codes codified growing racial tensions that had roiled throughout the period. Jim Crow segregation that aimed to cement a strict racial hierarchy became the law of the land. Black women struggled to maintain their dignity and safety as the Jim Crow era dawned, while some white women supported the terrorist acts of groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) because they wanted to maintain the racial superiority that had been their birthright since colonists first arrived in the New World. The Civil War and Reconstruction brought radical changes to the United States, but what would come of those changes remained to be seen.